The empty chair

Sacharov Prize: the "presence-absence" of Guillermo Farinas

An empty chair with the Cuban flag representing the recipient of the Sacharov Prize; the liberating applause of the European Parliament upon the approval of the 2011 budget; the concerned glance of the EU Commission President Barroso speaking of the European Council. These recent pictures represent the successes and obstacles on the path of integration and of Europe on the global scene.Budget, rights and citizenship. In the past week the “European circus” once more shuttled from Strasburg (EP Plenary, December 13-16) to Brussels (the summit of the Heads of Government and State December 16-17). MEPs approved next year’s EU budget, adopted legislative texts, voted on reports and resolutions on human rights in the EU and in the world. Along with Commission and Council representatives, MEPs discussed the summit on Economic Governance in Brussels along with the outcome of the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun. The EP approved the ground rules for the “citizens’ initiative” enabling one million citizens to request a new EU law, while it voted down the proposal on a “single permit” for immigrants. Although the draft legislation was favored by a large political group, a majority of MEPs claimed it would have sanctioned a disparity of treatment between European and foreign workers, risking the recovery of principles contained in the much vilified Bolkenstein directive, symbolically reflected in the depiction of the “Polish plumber”.Where freedom is missing. The European path is marked by symbols. Two more were added this week. On December 15 the Sacharov Prize was placed on an empty chair wrapped in a Cuban flag. Jerzy Buzek, President of the EU Parliament, which annually awards the Prize to individuals or organizations who seek to defend freedom of expression and human rights, said: “Despite our plea to the government of Havana the winner of the Prize Guillermo Farinas was denied permission to leave the country”. “Farinas is a journalist who fights for freedom and democracy in his Country – Buzek said -. He spent years in confinement and has gone on hunger strike 23 times as a non-violent means of fighting oppression in Cuba. The last hunger strike almost killed him. In Cuba there is no freedom. It was only thanks to the mediation of the Catholic Church that 52 political prisoners were recently released, but other 11 human rights activists are unjustly being detained. The award to Farinas is a symbolical prize also to all those who – in Cuba as in the rest of the world – peacefully demand the enforcement of justice, human rights and freedom”.Voice and hope. The first symbol is the empty chair. The second symbol is the voice of Guillermo Farinas that was heard in a recorded message to the European Parliament: “I have learned to be guided by the words of the first known dissident, Jesus Christ: ‘love thine enemies”. “The Castro dictatorship has been cruel, but we will continue our peaceful opposition”. “The population are becoming aware and we will continue our struggle for democracy and peace”. “My deepest hope is that you will not allow yourselves to be deceived by the siren songs of a cruel regime practising ‘wild communism’ whose only desire” is “to benefit from the loans and investments used to help Third World countries under the Cotonou Agreements”, he said. In the message, followed by a long applause in the European Parliament, Farinas underlined that a change of direction in EU-Cuba relations could only occur if the following five pre-conditions are met: “the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience”, an end to the violent beatings of and threats to the peaceful opposition, the repealing of all Cuban laws that contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, grant the wherewithal, in daily practice, for establishing opposition parties, accept that all Cubans “living in the diaspora take part in the cultural, economic, political and social life” of the country. The objectives of the summit. As relates to domestic policy the Assembly focused on the budget and on the European Council. MEPs discussed the themes with Community institution representatives. The EU Council should “send a sign of solidarity and support to the European project”, declared Commission President José Manuel Barroso, in the opening speech of the Plenary session. Acknowledging the ongoing difficulties experienced by national and European economies Barroso underlined the meeting’s “two major objectives. These are: identifying the key features of a permanent financial stability tool for the euro zone” and “introducing minor adjustments to the Treaties” so as to grant binding juridical force to the said tool. Most MEPs urged for “courage” and Europeanist commitments by the 27 EU premiers.

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